Friday, June 09, 2017

Proving Their Mettle, Tool Pummels Its Legion of Loyal Fans in Rosemont (and At Least One Newbie) -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

w/ opening act Once & Future Band
Allstate Arena, Rosemont, IL
June 8, 2017

Theoretically, this review should be written by an avowed Toolhead, who has long loved the thunderous quartet, enough to offer a holistic perspective while also casting a critical eye on Thursday's show.

For most rock concerts I go to--and therefore review--are by bands I love.

Sure this may sound astonishingly obvious, but in having attended over 700 concerts across 36 years, the vast majority were by artists I've opted to see multiple times (over the years, though occasionally in bunches).

There are relatively few acts I find myself "checking out" for a first time--especially as I don't get to festivals much anymore--but particularly as I love the art of live performance, I make a point of trying to widen my musical horizons.

Hence, over the years--including a good deal in just the past few--I've gone to several shows by previously-unseen artists I more "like" than "love," or perhaps am just curious about.

These, in no particular order, include Duran Duran, Hall & Oates, Tears for Fears, New Order, Judas Priest, Barry Manilow, Dave Matthews Band, Neil Diamond, Fleet Foxes, Taylor Swift, Earth Wind & Fire, Bryan Ferry, Blue Oyster Cult, Black Sabbath, Peter Wolf, Alice Cooper, The Black Keys, Poison, Steve Miller Band, Keith Urban, The Dixie Chicks, Leonard Cohen, LCD Soundsystem, Barry Gibb, The Tragically Hip, Moby, Charlatans UK, Placebo, Arctic Monkeys, Willie Nelson, Al Green, Teenage Fanclub, Graham Parker, Dawes and Adele, all of whom I've still seen just once (though for the most part enjoyed).

Whether prompted by my own sense that I "should see them" or the suggestion of music loving friends, these exploratory live forays--typically accompanied by delving into recordings--have occasionally raised my appreciation quite considerably.

To wit, I've now seen Arcade Fire, Depeche Mode, The Cure, Santana, System of a Down, Phish, Stevie Wonder, Rod Stewart, Madonna, Chicago and others (including Prince and Stone Temple Pilots) multiple times after first getting to them--live--relatively late.

Photo credit on this picture only: Gary Yokoyama / Hamilton Spectator
Taken at Tool's show in Hamilton, Ontario on May 31.
Which is my typically circuitous way of addressing how & why I went to see alt-metal titans Tool on Thursday night despite not knowing any of their songs until a friend heralded them last year, the actual impetus for my curiosity. (Tool's first EP came out in 1992 and they've been fairly big concert headliners since not long after.)

Hence, unlike many of my concert reviews, this isn't written from the standpoint of a longtime fan, which clearly put me in the vast minority of the sold-out Allstate Arena crowd.

Especially as the band hasn't released a new album in 11 years, Tool's fanbase is extremely loyal, and--despite my getting a sense through considerable listening, reviews, word-of-mouth and YouTube--they knew what to expect much better than I.

This includes a vocalist whose face you never see, as Maynard James Keenan--who can be considered something of an anti-frontman--opts to stand, often quite shrouded, at the back of the stage next to drummer Danny Carey. On this tour at least, he has also outfitted him in police tactical gear, or something of the sort.

But while I can't claim to be a Tool fan going back decades, in anticipation for this show--well before it was announced--I acquired all five all of their studio albums (the first, Opiate, being an EP) and spent considerable time familiarizing myself with songs that frequented setlists.

So I appreciated that Tool's music has a density that sounds as if Black Sabbath merged with Rush and, perhaps a bit less so, King Crimson or other prog rock giants. (Opening act Once & Future Band prompted me to scribble down "Rush, Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd, King Crimson" though they weren't nearly as good as any of those bands nor the headliner.)

Though I won't say I came to "love" Tool's oeuvre coming into the show--or upon exiting it for that matter--I enjoyed the video, lights & lasers-abetted thunder of songs like "The Grudge,"  which opened the concert, and particularly "Schism," "Opiate" and "Ænema," which bludgeoned me consecutively not long thereafter.

While I found "Third Eye" to be particularly long and sludgy, and despite the obvious talents--and massive biceps--of drummer Danny Carey, who adorned a Michael Jordan jersey, I could have done without his drum solo following a brief set break, there wasn't any music I heard that I didn't sufficiently enjoy.

I can understand the appeal of Tool and expect & hope most in the passionate crowd truly loved the show. That it didn't provide the emotional embrace for me that U2 did over the weekend is undoubtedly due to differing levels and lengths of fandom, and isn't a knock on the band or its followers.

That Keenan does things a bit differently than most rock singers certainly deserves no derision, though I would have welcomed a bit of humor--or just some self-aware levity--being mixed into the proceedings, which couldn't help but make me think of Spinal Tap at times.

From what I'd read about past performances, Keenan probably spoke a bit more at Allstate than is customary, but didn't really seem to say anything all that compelling, beyond urging the audience to question authority, apparently an underlying theme in Tool's lyrics.

I get that this is a band that doesn't lead audience singalongs or engage in "How ya doing Chicago?" localized pandering, but given that the setlists are pretty static across tour stops--see what Tool played in Rosemont on show ultimately felt a bit rote, even cold, despite the impressively muscular musicality of Keenan, Carey, bassist Justin Chancellor and guitarist Adam Jones.

Jones is a Libertyville native who grew up with Tom Morello--see Wikipedia for how their friendship helped lead to Tool's formation--and his bringing a child onstage at the end was one of the few overtly humanistic moments of a Tool concert that was, while often blistering, a bit too mechanical for my preferences. 

@@@@ (out of 5) earmarks a show I enjoyed and was glad to have attended, but not one I would effusively recommend to others nor is likely to bring me back for an encore (if not several).

As with most "word-of-mouth or curiosity" concerts I attend, with a sense of appreciation for the artist if not vast inherent affinity, that's where this Tool show fairly falls for me.

I'm glad I've come to know their music far more than I had. When the band finally puts out another album--they haven't had a new one since 2006's 10,000 Days--I'll be happy to give it a listen.

But while, in Rosemont, I was musically, sonically and visually impressed, and at times dazzled, in sum I wasn't quite blown away.

I'll accept this as a matter of taste, and not a barometer of quality, and would be happy to hear what hardcore Tool fans thought of this show.

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